Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July/August 2008
by Gillian Kendall

In this issue: The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, Slow Journey South: Walking to Africa––a year in footsteps, and Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland
by Barbara Sjoholm

I grew up in Florida, being cold makes me tense, and spending a winter in Lapland is my idea of Hell. But Sjoholm is a terrific writer, so I put on a fleece, turned up the heat, and skidded into Palace. Even though it was chilling just reading about dog–sledding, snowstorms, and the Icehotel, I'm glad she wrote about Lapland, because now I don't have to go there.

A frequent traveler to Scandanavia and a Norwegian translator, Sjoholm sensibly lives in Seattle, but she headed to the Arctic Circle after a bad breakup, hoping the pristine environment would warm her frozen heart, or something. "I wanted extremity and silence, a winter world to mirror my sense of loss, an absence of sunshine while I found by bearings again." The travel therapy worked so well that she ended up going back for a second winter, to develop friendships and explore the terrain in the darkest part of the year.

The book is organized into long sections focusing on various aspects of Arctic life, such as the famous Icehotel (technically spelled ICEHOTEL to distinguish it from imposters), reindeer herding, Santa's postbox, dog–sledding, and corporate mining––laced with a motif of Hans Christian Andersen. All together, the sections give a rich natural history of the area as well as Sjoholm's view of the current cultural and environmental pressures.

Breaking with a tradition of Eurocentric authors who wrote stories of the "wasteland" in the north, Sjoholm writes with admirable restraint and respect about the indigenous Sami people and their culture, as well as ongoing threats from non–indigenous people and culture, such as the governments of Sweden and Finland, international tourists and the attendant industry.

Although I remained just as impressed by the architecture and the artists… the narrowness of the tourist experience there left me yearning for more. The Icehotel was, for most visitors, a trip of only a few days, if that. The experience was constructed for them. They arrived by plane, were transported by van, taxi, or dogsled to the hotel, had a wonderful meal in the inn across the street, a few drinks in the bar. They could visit the gift shop and load up on tasteful souvenirs, sit in reception and write postcards, wander around the site. Now they could see a concert or play in the Ice Globe, and if they had a room in the newly constructed hotel annex, they could watch TV. If they stayed a day are two longer, they could go skiing or snowmobiling or dog–sledding, or spend some time in the Sami tent down the road. All of this cost money, a lot of money, and all that was for tourists, not locals.

Traveling well off the usual tourist paths, Sjoholm warms up what could be dry material by means of close, personal involvement. With sensitivity and insight, she describes a place that is relatively un–trafficked and an environment not yet ruined, and she particularly examines the role and value of tourists––those necessary, paying visitors to a "pristine" area that is fast growing a lot less pristine. "Lapland …was only a 'wilderness' in the parallel reality of promotional language."

With benefit of Sjoholm's literary research and wide personal exploration, this picture of modern Lapland gives a complex, rich view of an area few travelers can claim to know well. Sjoholm may have gone to Lapland to heal herself, but ends up giving back her heart to Lapland and its people.

Slow Journey South: Walking to Africa––a year in footsteps
By Paula Constant

Constant comes a long way in this journal–like story, and not only geographically. The narrative begins when she and her husband are drifting about in Broome, Australia, unfocused, underemployed, and vaguely hoping to find a way to "do the whole creative thing." But by the book's end, she's a fit, organized, and clear–headed trekker, having shed extra baggage both tangible and emotional while walking from London to the edge of the Sahara. And the last page of the book isn't yet the end of the journey: Constant is carrying on to Capetown, solo, for the sequel.

The book starts slowly: we don't actually set foot to pathway until page 112, after years of delays. But from then on, Constant's observations about the landscape and the people she encounters read like a letter from a kind friend: highly personal, never inflated or self–important, always engrossing. Constant reflects on her own nature, her relationship with her husband, her life goals and even her place on earth with every village or mountain range that she moves through.

In typical response to my impatience, the walking suddenly becomes quite tough, with rugged hills and hot, dry days, and we rough–camp in isolation for nights on end as we cut inland across the top of the Algarve.

But, as always, in the walking in the rhythm, I begin to find my peace again…

Most fascinating are the actual physical details: the equipment, the blisters, the dinners, the kind of tent stakes used and why some worked better than others. For those of us who rarely toddle further than the local shops, the idea of walking to Africa is like undergoing a sex–change or entering a nunnery. She did what? How? Most importantly, why would anyone do such a thing?

Finally we ditch the last of our excess weight, and the packs are truly light for the first time on the whole walk. Until now we have hoarded a secret fear that in Morocco we would need more to survive, would need all of the camping things we often don't use, but the opposite has been the case. Here, we have put the tent up only twice. Here, people always offer a stranger a place to sleep. Here we need very little to survive, and suddenly we are walking thirty to forty kilometers every day, even despite the heat… . I think we have changed so greatly, slowed down inside so far, that now we understand how to receive without embarrassment, and how to give the last of what we have, every day, without worrying whether it will come back to us or not.

The reason for making the trek turns out to be the effect of millions of steps on Constant's mind and body. Along the way, she changes as much as the landscape, as much as her steps themselves.

Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America
By Rob Sangster and Tim Leffel

I started out reading this book with mild curiosity, but in the intervening time I've decided to emigrate to Mexico, so casual perusal has turned into obsessive study. Not a guidebook, but a an uber–guide or meta–reference, the Tool Kit provides access for serious travelers (or would–be residents!) to the culture, logistics and modus operandi of 8 countries. It covers every thinkable aspect of trip–planning, and some unthinkable ones as well.

Long–time travelers Sangster and Leffel dispense detailed, up–to–date advice about everything from choosing a travel partner to preserving memories, seeing the scenery to seeing about security –– including this strikingly sensible advice on what not to pack:

At 560 pages, this tome is not something you want to tote around in your backpack but instead read before you go––in fact, it contains suggestions for planning as much as a year before you leave home. While some of the suggestions seem a tad obvious (e.g., don't carry a fat wallet in a hip pocket), most of the book is as valuable and entertaining as late–night travelers' tales around a hostel fireplace. Leffel and Sangster share their combined wisdom and knowledge like a pair of older brothers––they sound cool and casual, but they know their stuff and have your best interests at heart. With every story (I knew a Japanese guy who accepted an orange soda from a stranger…) comes an object lesson meant to keep you solvent, safe, and sane. (In this case, the lesson is not to take food from dodgy strangers).

Before heading south of the border, buy, read, and memorize this book.

Gillian Kendall, adventurer for hire, is author of Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet, which the New York Times named one of the notable travel books of 2006. She is currently planning her 4th trans–Pacific trip in 11 months, and desperately seeking upgrades. See more at her website

Also in this issue:

Palace of the Snow Queen

Buy The Palace of the Snow Queen in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Slow Journey South

Buy Slow Journey South in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Traveler's Tool Kit

Buy Traveler's Tool Kit in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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